A ghostly mist appeared during the removal of the gum wall this week.
A ghostly, foul-smelling mist appeared during the removal of the gum wall this week. Charles Mudede

For me, the gum wall has a racial dimension, a cultural dimension, and a deeply personal dimension—the subject of this post. Whenever I pass that horrible tourist attraction, most which is gone (though the smell of the removal project dominates the alley's air like a ghost), I recall an incident from my childhood that haunts me to this day.

It happened like this: During the dry season of 1982, my seventh-grade class at Lewisam Primary School in Chisipite, Harare, held a special event for our parents. My mother attended, and she got to meet my teacher, who was a heavy smoker, and the parents of the other students, most of whom were white. Tea, biscuits, and sweetbreads were served at this little event. And I felt handsome in my uniform. My necktie was tight; my socks were up.

At one point, I overheard my mother speaking with a white couple about the rules of the Mudede house. She proudly told them that she did not allow her children to chew bubble gum at all. (I think all three had noticed a rude piece of gum stuck on a student's desk.) This conversation would have been completely forgotten in the long stretch of time if my mother had not made one awfully embarrassing mistake: She pronounced "bubble gum" as "bubbRREE gum." This would not have been an awful thing to do if it were not for the fact that the mispronunciation revealed that mother hadn't mastered the English L sound. And the reason why the mastery of the English L was so difficult for black Africans is because Shona (the main black African language of Zimbabwe) does not have an L sound at all, and its speakers are in the habit of replacing the English one with a Shona R (rree as in river) sound, thus: "bubbrree gum."

As my mother drove me home from the class event, I told her (no, I ordered her) to master the English L. She was a professor, and not some house girl. How could a professor use the Shone R on an English expression as common as bubble gum? She countered that Shona was her mother tongue, that she was not raised in an English-speaking house, like I was. Such linguistic habits die hard; she was going to make mistakes occasionally. I put my foot down on the matter, and said there was no excuse; she had to get it right and not embarrass me again.

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I do not think she ever learned how to say bubble gum properly; I think she just never said the word again out of fear. Her long and now permanent silence (she died in 2003) still troubles my soul. It exposes how profoundly colonized my mind was as a boy, how I so naturally associated the language of the blacks (Shona) with the lower classes and the language of the whites (English) with education, sophistication, and high society. It took decades to decolonize much of my mind. And during this long and slow process, I grew closer to my mother, with her first language and world.

Nevertheless, fear kept her away from that word. She banned it from her lips. And now that she is dead, I will never get to hear her say "bubbrree gum" again.